There have been enough Middle East/ Iraq War-based movies trickling out in 2007 to comprise a film school mini-symposium on what will surely prove to be the most ubiquitous topic and setting over the next decade. Surprisingly, the best of this year's lot thus far is The Kingdom, an action movie with characters filled by Hollywood central casting.
Why is such a seemingly routine film the best, then? For one, director Peter Berg takes a venerable genre—the murder mystery—and infuses it with relevant, revelatory political and cultural import, just as he did with the sports movie in the sensational Friday Night Lights. The Kingdom is a police procedural imbued with political overtones, but one that is more effective than such recent films as In the Valley of Elah and A Mighty Heart, which were glum tomes buttressed, and usually diluted, by their procedural underpinning.
While other films are set in the outposts of Baghdad, Karachi or Jerusalem, Berg sets his film at ground zero of radical Islamic terrorism: Saudi Arabia, the principal source of financing for al-Qaeda and Hamas, and the birthplace of bin Laden and 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers. It is also, thanks to its rich oil reserves and exports, the target of tremendous Western interest and involvement.
After an illuminating opening credits sequence tracking the modern-day history of Saudi Arabia starting with its initial official recognition beginning in just 1934, The Kingdom begins with a paradox: a baseball game in the middle of Riyadh, or, more specifically, in the middle of a fortified compound where American oil workers live. In this gripping opening scene, we observe the locals watching the game from neighboring rooftops. As we discover, however, their principal interest is not in a foreigner's ballgame, but an impending guerrilla attack that will, in short order, kill hundreds of Saudis and Americans.
An FBI team led by a cocksure agent named Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) negotiates a bureaucratic and diplomatic labyrinth and gains access to the Saudi crime scene in an attempt to find those responsible for the attack. Along the way, they find unexpected help from a sympathetic police commander (Ashraf Barhom) who defies his duplicitous local law enforcement for the sake of a better tomorrow for his country.
The bulk of the film is polished and conventional. Berg employs the same kinetic, handheld camerawork he used to great effect in Friday Night Lights and which, following the work of such directors as Paul Greengrass (United 93), Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart) and Stephen Gaghan (Syriana), has become de rigueur for 21st-century conflicts between non-state actors.
Beyond its taut tableau, the lessons of The Kingdom are more thought-provoking than didactic. Nonetheless, they go to the heart of a time and place that demands added attention and examination, no matter the vehicle. —Neil Morris
The Kingdom opens Friday throughout the Triangle.
In Across the Universe, director Julie Taymor (The Lion King, Frida) attempts to take the entire decade of the 1960s, fold it flat and slide it into the record sleeve of a Beatles LP. Intermittently ambitious and mind blowing, it falters by not being audacious enough.
The film begins as straight-arrow suburban Lucy (sort-of-from-Raleigh Evan Rachel Wood) and her beau bop at the hop, while an ocean away, Jude (Jim Sturgess) and his honey dance at the Cavern (the real Cavern!) to the Mersey sound. What Lucy doesn't know is that she is about to fulfill every '60s teen dream by getting a real live Liverpool boyfriend—complete with mop top—courtesy of her slacker Princeton brother, Max (Joe Anderson).
Across the Universe flows with the zeitgeist, detailing the way the counterculture was spawned by dinner table squabbles about long hair and the Vietnam war. The film's depiction of casual communal living, and the easy sex and drugs, feels right, as does the way the decade ends in a bloom of blood and soured idealism. The three leads are appealing, along with the ersatz Janis Joplin (Dana Fuchs) and Jimi Hendrix (Martin Luther McCoy) and, as a bit of stunt casting, Joe Cocker, Bono and Eddie Izzard as the spectacle's ringmasters.
This '60s kaleidoscope is scored to Beatles music, 33 songs we all know by heart—not just the words, but every note, every chord, every plink, hum and chirp. Setting a musical to these über familiar songs is an interesting idea, because we did sing them all the time, it was the continual soundtrack to the era. Having the actors perform the songs live does give the music a natural feel, so much so that the wackiest ideas, like scoring a nightmarish draft induction to "I Want You" as the menacing Uncle Sam posters come alive and make complete emotional sense. At their best, the musical numbers overwhelm the long stretches of useless "plot"—there's far too much ho-hum boy meets-loses-gets girl. If only the film had taken one step more and eliminated dialogue entirely, in favor of coasting on the score alone.
Across the Universe will polarize opinions, but will it motivate audiences? Will the young lovers the film is meant to attract be alienated by the mise en scene slanted for appeal to the youth of decades ago? An inevitable future as a midnight head trip cult movie looms. —Laura Boyes
Across the Universe opens Friday in select theaters.